Recently I had a lengthy discussion with an acquaintance about evolution and the various concepts and claims that we find under the heading of the word “evolution.” At one point I brought up the origin of life and he promptly insisted: “that’s not part of evolution.”
“Perhaps,” I offered, “but consider that the origin of life is generally included under the heading of ‘evolution’ in biology textbooks, complete with optimistic discussions about the famous experiment by Stanley Miller and Harold Urey.”
“Furthermore,” I continued, “researchers have long talked about ‘chemical evolution’ in relation to the origin of life. What do they mean by ‘evolution’ in that context, if the origin of life is not part of evolution?” Indeed, although Darwin did not address the origin of life in The Origin, he did speculate in other writings about the idea of chemical evolution, and it forms an important part of the origins narrative for many people.
“Still, it isn’t part of evolution,” he insisted.
I have seen this insistence on many occasions. There may be some who sincerely think a bright-line distinction needs to be drawn on logical grounds. But in my experience the primary reasons Darwinists insist that abiogenesis is not part of evolutionary theory are the following:
First, abiogenesis is an incredibly difficult problem, one that every rational person acknowledges is nearly intractable under a naturalistic scenario, with only a faint glimmer of hope on the distant horizon. As a result, from a tactical standpoint it seems better to keep this most difficult problem at bay – neatly and distantly compartmentalized as its own separate problem, rather than tainting the “overwhelming evidence” in favor of evolution.
Second, Darwinists have a very firm sense in their mind that once reproduction is on the scene then anything can happen. Darwin himself took this approach in The Origin when he talked of evolution taking over once life had been “breathed . . . into a few forms or into one”. Indeed, the very theory that Darwin put forward is often characterized by the fundamental description of “descent with modification.” Thus, there is a very palpable belief in the Darwinist mind that once reproduction comes along, the magic of mutation and selection can take over and the problem of biology is well on its way to being solved.*
Beyond the musings of Darwin, Oparin and Haldane, none other than Richard Dawkins has suggested that once we get a self-replicating molecule, then the mutation-selection mechanism can take over and evolution can kick in. Thus, the real problem in the origin of life, the first lucky step, as Dawkins notes is “the origin of the first accurately self-replicating molecule.”
I asked my acquaintance if he agreed with Dawkins that once we have a self-replicating molecule in place, that Darwinian evolution can take over. He enthusiastically agreed, although acknowledging that the first tender self-replicator would need a safe environment in which to flourish. (He also insisted that scientists have created such a self-replicating molecule in the lab, but backed down when I asked for details and once he realized I was familiar with Jack Szostak’s good work at Harvard.)
All of this creates a rather interesting conundrum for the faithful Darwinist who recognizes at least some of the challenges with abiogenesis. Now that the cards are on the table as to what people like Darwin, Oparin, and Dawkins think (or at least hope to be true) we can bring some logic to bear on the subject.
There are three logical options available to the faithful Darwinist:
1. Agree with Dawkins that the initiating requirement for Darwinian evolution is a self-replicating molecule and that Darwinian evolution can kick in at that early stage of biology. Then conveniently redefine the first self-replicating molecule as the first form of “life”. In this case Darwinian evolution can take over at this stage and one can still argue that Darwinian evolution only deals with living organisms and doesn’t have to address the origin of this first “life”. This has some logical convenience, but is very difficult to sustain in practice. After all, essentially all origin of life researchers take the view that first “life” is more than just a single self-replicating molecule, and they also sense the need for the additional requirements outlined in #2 below. Furthermore, if one adopts this #1 approach and also happens to mistakenly believe (as do so many people) that self-replicating molecules have been produced in the lab, then one is arguing that the origin of life has largely been solved, a view that is at odds with every serious researcher looking into the issue.
2. Agree with Dawkins that the initiating requirement for Darwinian evolution is a self-replicating molecule and that Darwinian evolution can kick in at that early stage of biology. However, recognize that an initial living organism is much more than a single self-replicating molecule, and that additional factors are required to produce first “life”, which may include a functional membrane, working metabolic pathways, information-bearing molecules, and perhaps other properties.
This is a very common view, likely the most common view, certainly among those who would tend to agree with Dawkins. But the logical upshot of this view is that the origin of life, the process that starts with a self-replicating molecule and culminates in the first functional primitive form of life falls squarely within the framework of Darwinian evolution. Thus, on this view it is absolutely incorrect to insist that the origin of life is “not part of evolution” and that Darwinian evolution need not explain it. To the contrary, Darwinian evolution must explain the origin of life from this first self-replicating molecule, and cannot even get off the ground without it.
3. Disagree with Dawkins that Darwinian evolution can kick in with a self-replicating molecule. Recognize that something beyond self-replication is needed, such as the items outlined in #2, before Darwinian evolution can kick in. This approach (like #2 and contrary to #1) has the benefit of being consistent with what origin of life researchers are actually working on. This also has the benefit of separating the thorny origin of life challenges from the broader claims of evolution, because Darwinian evolution would only kick in at a later stage when “life” actually comes on the scene.
But at the same time this raises questions about the Darwinian mechanism: If not self-replication, then what is it exactly that causes Darwinian evolution to start? Is there a certain level of complex functional specification required before mutation and selection can kick in? Is there a prior need for information content and translating protocols – an information content, retrieval, and translation process – before evolution can start? This #3 also means that Darwinian evolution, the near-mystical process of variation plus selection, can be of no help in going from a self-replicating molecule to the first living organism or in addressing the items required for the origin of life.
So for those who argue for a naturalistic origin of life scenario, which is it? Which of the three** approaches do you prefer?
* This is nonsense, of course, not only because the mutation-selection mechanism is largely impotent, but also because the reproduction aspect brings far less to the table than evolutionists would like to think. That is a topic for another time. (Note also that the idea of reproduction arising at the beginning of the evolutionary process is severely problematic for the evolutionary story, as detailed here.)
** There is fourth option available, but most Darwinists will never consider it, as it strikes at the very heart of Darwin’s theory. Namely:
4. Agree with Dawkins that the initiating requirement for Darwinian evolution is a self-replicating molecule and that Darwinian evolution can kick in at that early stage of biology. However, recognize that it isn’t going to do much of anything and will never solve the origin of life problem or produce a living organism because the mutation-selection mechanism is essentially impotent as a creative force.